Canada's History - - FROM THE ARCHIVES -

Eight thou­sand feet above the earth, twelve Royal Air Force Sop­with Camels tan­gled with a mix of about twenty Ger­man Fokker Dr.1 tri­planes and Al­ba­tros D.V bi­planes. The air­craft criss-crossed the sky, each try­ing to find a tar­get while avoid­ing be­com­ing the lat­est vic­tim in the war.

On that day, April 21, 1918, twenty-four-year-old Cana­dian Cap­tain Roy Brown was lead­ing Royal Air Force 209 Squadron in at­tack­ing a pair of Ger­man ob­ser­va­tion planes. See­ing their ob­servers in dan­ger, the ex­pert pi­lots of jas­tas (squadrons) 5 and 11 rose to join the fight. The Ger­man squadrons formed part of the no­to­ri­ous and deadly fly­ing cir­cus led by the most fa­mous pilot of the war, Man­fred von Richthofen — the Red Baron.

The air­craft clashed over Ger­man trenches and be­gan drift­ing to­ward Al­lied ter­ri­tory, helped by a rare east wind. In a tor­rent of noise and move­ment each plane cir­cled, try­ing to get into a po­si­tion to at­tack the en­emy. What must have felt like an eter­nity took only min­utes to con­clude.

As the flight leader, Brown was on the look­out for both po­ten­tial tar­gets and fel­low pi­lots in need of help. Be­low, he caught sight of one of his Sop­with Camels mak­ing for home. The pilot was his high school friend from Ed­mon­ton, Wilfrid “Wop” May, try­ing to ex­tri­cate him­self from his first real air bat­tle. Be­hind him a lone red Fokker tri­plane was fol­low­ing and clos­ing quickly.

Brown im­me­di­ately put his own Sop­with Camel into a dive and headed to help his fel­low pilot. The cap­tain slowly closed in on the two fight­ers be­low, all the while watch­ing his own tail to en­sure he was not in im­mi­nent dan­ger him­self.

In what must have been ag­o­niz­ingly slow mo­ments, Brown watched as the red tri­plane pep­pered his vic­tim with short ma­chine gun bursts. Fi­nally, ap­proach­ing from out of the sun, Brown let loose a long burst of ma­chine gun fire from ap­prox­i­mately three hun­dred me­tres away.

The pilot of the red tri­plane, re­al­iz­ing his sud­denly pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion, turned and dove. Brown, be­liev­ing his fel­low pilot to be safe, also turned away to help an­other dis­tressed pilot who was be­ing pur­sued by a pair of Ger­man fight­ers.

Brown, May, and all of their fel­low pi­lots from 209 Squadron man­aged to re­turn safely to their air­field. Lieu­tenant (and later air vice mar­shal) Fran­cis Mellersh, who was lead­ing one of the three flights and whom Brown had also helped, had wit­nessed the crash of the red tri­plane. It ap­peared that Brown had a con­firmed kill.

While the pi­lots en­joyed their well-earned lunch they re­ceived a phone call. Man­fred von Richthofen, the Red Baron him­self, had been iden­ti­fied as the pilot of the red tri­plane. His dead body had been re­cov­ered from the air­craft.

Had Cap­tain Roy Brown shot down and killed Ger­many’s great­est war ace?

Man­fred von Richthofen and Roy Brown took very dif­fer­ent paths to that fate­ful day in April 1918. Von Richthofen was a Prus­sian aris­to­crat born in what is to­day part of Poland. A strong and nat­u­ral ath­lete, he had grown up rid­ing horses and en­tered mil­i­tary train­ing by age eleven. Hunt­ing was a favourite pas­time, and, like all great fighter pi­lots, von Richthofen was an ex­cel­lent marks­man.

He be­gan the war as a cavalry of­fi­cer, but with the weak­ness of mounted sol­diers ex­posed by mod­ern ma­chine guns and ar­tillery he was rel­e­gated to sec­ondary du­ties. Bored with life be­hind the lines, he re­quested a trans­fer to the air force, which was ac­cepted in Oc­to­ber 1915. By Septem­ber 1916 he had reg­is­tered his first con­firmed vic­tory; by the end of the year he had reached fif­teen kills.

On Jan­uary 4, 1917, he shot down Cana­dian Flight Lieu­tenant Allan Switzer Todd, the first of forty-seven con­firmed kills for von Richthofen that year. Over the course of the war the Red Baron would claim a to­tal of nine Cana­di­ans killed or cap­tured. His achieve­ments of 1917 were only cur­tailed by a se­vere head wound in July that even­tu­ally left him on med­i­cal leave for most of Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber.

By 1918 von Richthofen was a house­hold name in Ger­many. His au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Der Röte Kampf­flieger ( The Red Fighter Pilot) was pub­lished that win­ter with the fa­mil­iar red Fokker tri­plane on the cover. The book, a mix of per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence and pro­pa­ganda, was sent to hun­dreds of thou­sands of troops on the front lines. An English ver­sion was even pub­lished in the sum­mer of 1918 after his death.

Von Richthofen was a hero of the Ger­man em­pire and his im­age could be found across Ger­many. He ap­peared in a film en­ti­tled Krief­slfier an Der West­front (War fliers on the Western Front) that was shown across Ger­many. The film opens with scenes of new air pi­lots and sev­eral other lead­ing Ger­man fighter pi­lots. “How­ever,” notes film his­to­rian Michael Paris, “it is ev­i­dent that the main subject is Richthofen; in­deed the shots of the early aces ap­pear only as a pre­lude which leads in­ex­orably to the emer­gence of the Baron, the ‘Ace of Aces.’”

Each side needed heroes to dis­tract from the never-end­ing blood­bath of the Western Front. Fighter pi­lots pro­vided an ounce of chivalry and ex­cite­ment that seemed to lift the war out of the mud and into the realm of knights of the sky. In re­al­ity the war was no more kind to the pi­lots who burned up, fell through the sky, or crashed to their deaths, but the per­cep­tion that the war was some­how more fair and eq­ui­table in the air had sig­nif­i­cant pur­pose.

Roy Brown was born in Car­leton Place, On­tario, in De­cem­ber 1893, about eigh­teen months after von Richthofen’s birth. Also a gifted ath­lete, he played sev­eral dif­fer­ent sports and was even ap­proached by the Ot­tawa Sen­a­tors hockey team for a po­ten­tial try­out.

After com­plet­ing busi­ness train­ing in Ot­tawa, Brown moved to Ed­mon­ton to live with his un­cle and to fin­ish his high school di­ploma. His goal was to even­tu­ally study busi­ness man­age­ment at McGill Univer­sity, but with the out­break of war he set his sights on the skies. He paid for his own air train­ing at the Wright School of Avi­a­tion near Day­ton, Ohio. For $250 he re­ceived the nec­es­sary four hours of flight train­ing that al­lowed him to vol­un­teer for the Royal Naval Air Ser­vice.

While that sounds like an in­cred­i­bly short pe­riod of fly­ing time, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that at this stage flights were mea­sured in min­utes, not hours. It was only in De­cem­ber 1903 that Orville and Wil­bur Wright had pi­loted the first suc­cess­ful pow­ered flight on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The first Cana­dian pow­ered flight, or­ga­nized by Alexander Gra­ham Bell and flown by Dou­glas Mc­Curdy, had fol­lowed in 1909. Only a few years later, pi­lots around the world were train­ing for air bat­tles

that could scarcely have been imag­ined only a few months be­fore.

“We have had our al­ti­tude flights,” Brown ex­plained in one of his let­ters home. “I was up to about 800 feet, cut off my en­gine and vol­planed [went into a con­trolled dive] down. It is a great sen­sa­tion to feel that you are go­ing to land just wher­ever you wish.”

By Novem­ber, after many de­lays, Brown was fi­nally able to com­plete his train­ing, and by mid-De­cem­ber he was in Eng­land learn­ing the finer points of aerial com­bat in the Royal Naval Air Ser­vice. He achieved his first con­firmed vic­tory in July 1917 and added five more that Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber. He was awarded a Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Cross in Oc­to­ber, around the same time he was pro­moted to flight com­man­der with No. 9 Squadron. In Septem­ber 1917 Brown wrote home to his mother. The

Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen had pub­lished a let­ter from an­other pilot about the “thrilling” life­style of a mod­ern-day fighter pilot. Brown’s re­sponse was un­equiv­o­cal and pro­vides a win­dow into his ex­pe­ri­ence of the war.

“If you have no­ticed, it is the chaps who do noth­ing that put those in [let­ters pub­lished in news­pa­pers]. They are all talk,” Brown wrote. “When I write let­ters home they are for the fam­ily only. I do not care a rap whether peo­ple think I am do­ing any­thing or not. I did not come over here for that. I came be­cause I felt I should come. I am do­ing my best and can do no more. I have been some help in this war and if any­thing hap­pens to me

now, I have done some work any­way. If I am sat­is­fied within my­self that I have done as well as I can, that is all I care about.”

When the Royal Fly­ing Corps and Royal Naval Air Ser­vice merged on April 1, 1918, Brown’s squadron be­came 209 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. It was only three weeks be­fore he and his fel­low pi­lots would en­counter the Red Baron on April 21, 1918.

News of von Richthofen’s death was of­fi­cially an­nounced by the Bri­tish the day after their en­counter and at the same time that Aus­tralian sol­diers were giv­ing von Richthofen a full mil­i­tary burial. The news was pub­lished around the world, in­clud­ing in the New York Times.

Gen­eral Ernst Wil­helm von Hoepp­ner, com­man­der of the Ger­man air force, con­firmed glumly that “He has Fallen.” Von Hoepp­ner an­nounced that “the Ger­man Army has lost its greatly ad­mired pilot and the fight­ing air­men their beloved leader. He re­mains the hero of the Ger­man peo­ples for whom he fought and died. His death is a deep wound for his Geschwader and for the en­tire Air Ser­vice. The will by which he con­quered and led, that he handed down, will heal that wound.”

Sev­eral claims to have shot the Red Baron were im­me­di­ately sub­mit­ted. In ad­di­tion to Brown, mul­ti­ple Aus­tralian sol­diers on the ground claimed to have fired the fa­tal shot, in­clud­ing Sergeant Cedric Pop­kin, gun­ner W. J. Evans, and gun­ner Robert Buie.

From the per­spec­tive of the newly formed Royal Air Force, there was lit­tle doubt that Cana­dian pilot Roy Brown had killed the Red Baron. Brown and his fel­low pi­lots from 209 Squadron even man­aged to pull a few war tro­phies from von Richthofen’s air­craft, in­clud­ing his seat and a piece of the air fabric that wrapped his red tri­plane and bore the newly adopted Ger­man Balkenkreuz (cross) in­signia. The pi­lots of 209 Squadron etched their names onto the cross to mark their mo­ment in his­tory. Both pieces are on dis­play in the bar area of the Royal Cana­dian Mil­i­tary In­sti­tute in Toronto, where they are a re­minder of Canada’s avi­a­tion his­tory.

The Aus­tralian com­man­ders, on the other hand, vig­or­ously sup­ported the claims of their own sol­diers. In the end the of­fi­cial coroner’s re­port was in­con­clu­sive, and the ques­tion of who killed the Red Baron has re­mained one of the great mys­ter­ies of the First World War.

Many in­ten­sive stud­ies have been done, all of which re­in­force the great chal­lenges of re­con­struct­ing an aerial bat­tle decades, or even a cen­tury, later. Track­ing in­di­vid­ual bul­lets through the fog of war, ei­ther in the air, at sea, or on the ground, is in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult.

His­to­ri­ans Norman Franks and Alan Ben­nett pub­lished the most in­ten­sive of th­ese stud­ies in 1998. Franks and Ben­nett metic­u­lously un­earthed and re­viewed count­less doc­u­ments re­lated to von Richthofen’s fate­ful fi­nal flight.

Roy Brown’s claim to have downed the Red Baron, while likely an hon­est one, is al­most cer­tainly not sup­ported by the ev­i­dence at hand. After Brown at­tacked the Red Baron he saw von Richthofen dive, and two of his fel­low pi­lots wit­nessed the Ger­man pilot’s crash after a steep ver­ti­cal dive.

It’s un­der­stand­able how th­ese two events were as­sumed to be con­nected, but in fact there was a pe­riod of about ninety sec-

onds be­tween Brown’s at­tack and the ac­tual crash. After Brown’s ini­tial at­tack, the Red Baron dove and then con­tin­ued his pur­suit of Wilfrid May. It was likely only after suf­fer­ing some mi­nor dam­age from Aus­tralian troops fir­ing be­low that the Ger­man turned and headed for home.

While mak­ing this fi­nal dash the Red Baron made a long, slow turn into the wind, di­rectly in front of sev­eral Aus­tralian ground po­si­tions. It’s most prob­a­ble that the sin­gle bul­let that struck von Richthofen un­der his armpit and ex­ited through his chest was fired from one of their guns. The wound was sub­stan­tial and al­most cer­tainly killed von Richthofen within sec­onds, giv­ing him only enough time to crash-land in an empty field.

Franks and Ben­nett con­cluded in their orig­i­nal 1997 study that Sergeant Cedric Pop­kin, an Aus­tralian who was fir­ing his Vick­ers ma­chine gun on that fate­ful day, was most likely the per­son who fired the fa­tal shot. Pop­kin had fired at the Red Baron dur­ing his orig­i­nal pur­suit of May and man­aged a sec­ond burst of fire as von Richthofen cir­cled back to­wards his own lines.

Even then, Franks and Ben­nett added a foot­note to their own study when it was re­pub­lished in 2006. Ev­i­dence that be­came avail­able after the orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion sug­gested that the Red Baron was fly­ing di­rectly at Pop­kin on his sec­ond pass, which would have made it im­pos­si­ble for the Aus­tralian to have shot him from the side. They con­cluded that “there is still the pos­si­bil­ity that some un­known sol­dier had fired at the tri­plane yet had no rea­son to be­lieve he had fired the telling shot. How­ever, there is no de­fin­i­tive ev­i­dence for this, and Pop­kin re­mains the most likely can­di­date.”

Be­fore Ben­nett died in Jan­uary 2007, he com­pleted a man­u­script for a bi­og­ra­phy on Roy Brown that was later pub­lished with the help of Mar­garet Har­mon, Brown’s daugh­ter, and Denny May, Wilfrid May’s son. The pub­li­ca­tion stated, “Mar­garet Har­mon, Denny May and Alan Ben­nett agree that the six years of ef­fort and in­ves­ti­ga­tion which went into this book con­firm that Cap­tain A. Roy Brown ini­ti­ated the chain of events which cul­mi­nated in the death of Baron von Richthofen, and that a lucky shot, fired on the spur of the mo­ment by a sol­dier who had hith­erto not been in­volved, com­pleted the task for him.”

Per­haps the real mys­tery of the death of the Red Baron is how such an ex­pe­ri­enced and deadly pilot could leave him­self in such a vul­ner­a­ble po­si­tion fly­ing over en­emy ter­ri­tory. On the day of his death the wind was blow­ing ir­reg­u­larly from east to west, chang­ing the flight times for all pi­lots. The wind may have pushed the Red Baron fur­ther over en­emy lines than he be­lieved.

The Ger­mans were also fly­ing over a par­tic­u­larly marshy and wet area of the front that didn’t pro­vide ob­vi­ous vis­ual land­marks such as con­tin­u­ous trenches. This may have made iden­ti­fy­ing a lo­ca­tion more dif­fi­cult for von Richthofen, but at such a low al­ti­tude it may not have mat­tered.

Why was the Red Baron so ob­sessed with bring­ing down Wilfrid May?

Alan Ben­nett sur­mised that be­cause von Richthofen, a crack shot, had hit May’s air­craft so many times while miss­ing the pilot, he must have been try­ing to force May to land so that he could be cap­tured. It’s also pos­si­ble that von Richthofen was not fully re­cov­ered from the head wound he had suf­fered the pre­vi­ous July. If his judg­ment was im­paired even a small amount, it may have led to his demise.

In the end, there are no clear an­swers. Brown’s mo­ment with the Red Baron was the end of the war for him as well. He was of­fi­cially taken off ac­tive ser­vice a few days later and spent the next few weeks rest­ing in hos­pi­tal. On April 27, 1918, he wrote home to his fa­ther, say­ing “I feel just about all in to­day the way things have gone. My stom­ach has been very bad re­cently and the doc­tor says if I keep on I shall have a ner­vous break-down and has or­dered me to stop ac­tive ser­vice fly­ing.”

He de­scribed his en­counter with the Red Baron in the let­ter. “Our best ef­fort was on the 21st when we fought Baron von Richthofen’s Cir­cus as they are called. I ex­pect you will have read about them in the news­pa­pers,” Brown ex­plained to his fa­ther. “It was the most ter­ri­ble fight I have ever seen in the air. I doubt whether there has been one like it be­fore. We shot down three of their tri­planes, which were seen to crash…. Among th­ese was the Baron whom I shot down on our side of the lines.”

Brown con­tin­ued hope­fully, “It is bound to have a great ef­fect on the Hun es­pe­cially when they lost their best fighter and their stunt squadron was de­feated.”

While serv­ing as an air trainer, Brown was in­volved in a crash that left him in hos­pi­tal for the re­main­der of the war. He would never fully es­cape the grasp of the Red Baron, as he con­tin­ued to be both cel­e­brated and haunted by his en­counter with von Richthofen and by the con­tro­versy that con­tin­ued.

In re­sponse to a re­quest for more in­for­ma­tion from the Aus­tralian mag­a­zine Reveille after the war, Brown wrote, “As far as I am con­cerned, I knew in my own mind what hap­pened, and the war be­ing over, the job be­ing done, there is noth­ing to be gained by ar­gu­ing back and forth as to who did this and who did that. The main point is that, from the stand-point of the troops in the war, we gained our ob­jec­tive.”

Last Com­bat of the Red Baron, by Frank Wooton.

Top: Man­fred von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron, and fel­low Ger­man pi­lots, circa 1917. The Red Baron is seated in the plane’s cock­pit. Bot­tom Left: Von Richthofen with one of his tri­planes. Bot­tom Right: A 1917 portrait of the Red Baron by pho­tog­ra­pher C. J. von Dühren.

Top: Lieu­tenant Wilfrid “Wop” May in 1920. May’s nick­name stuck after a lit­tle cousin mis­pro­nounced his first name as “Wop­pie.” Bot­tom: A 1917 pho­to­graph of Cap­tain Arthur Roy Brown, the Cana­dian cred­ited with shoot­ing down the Red Baron.


Bot­tom Left: The Red Baron wears ban­dages due to a head in­jury that some his­to­ri­ans say was a fac­tor in his fa­tal flight.

Bot­tom Right: Mem­bers of the Aus­tralian mil­i­tary show off pieces of wreck­age from the Red Baron’s tri­plane on April 22, 1918. Some his­to­ri­ans ar­gue that an Aus­tralian fired the fa­tal bul­let that killed the Red Baron.

Top: The Richthofen Museum, in the Red Baron’s fam­ily home in Sch­wei­d­nitz, Ger­many, dis­plays sou­venirs of the pilot’s many aerial vic­to­ries. Fol­low­ing the Sec­ond World War, the town was an­nexed by Poland and re­named Swid­nica.

As a show of re­spect for the Red Baron, Aus­tralian troops fire a salute at his grave in Amiens, France, on April 22, 1918. The Ger­man ace was given a full mil­i­tary fu­neral by the Al­lied forces.

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